Malcolm Whyte, Canberra Regional Meeting

I thought I was the first, and only, Quaker in my family tree, but recently I was made aware by my son Bruce that I had a great-great uncle who was a convict and a Quaker early in the nineteenth century. Here is his story drawn from various sources[1] through the Internet.

Richard Edwards, whose real name was Abraham Charles Flower, was tried in the Old Bailey Criminal Court in London on my birth date, 26 October, 193 years ago in 1826 and indicted with two other men, William Powell and John Harris (alias Walker), for stealing a graining comb[2], “three inches and a half long”, valued at 1s.10d [about $A16 today], found guilty of “Theft: grand larceny” and transported for seven years. He had been born in Leominster, the son of Abraham Flower, a wholesale jeweller in London; he had a wife Susannah Matilda Flower (nee Pettitt) and a son, Abraham; and was listed at his trial as a lighterman and labourer. My mother was a Flower.

On the convict hulk Coromandel (with 300 aboard) he was transported to Bermuda. He was repeatedly put in irons for misbehaviour and considered “contemptuous and mutinous”, and then, because of his “truculence”, he was sent to Van Diemen’s Land on the Royal George. He arrived in Hobart on 18th October 1830 and was banished to the extremely harsh penal settlement on Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour. Even there he was a trouble-maker but he was influenced by the resident Wesleyan Minister and he was one of three convicts converted to Quakerism by two visiting Quaker Missionaries from London, James Backhouse and George Washington Walker. He settled down and was transferred to Hobart where he was assigned as a servant to Government House (perhaps with Quaker assistance). Having served his sentence of seven years he received his freedom “on the 26th of the 10th month 1833”.

As Richard Edwards, he applied for his wife Susannah Matilda Flower and son Abraham to come to Van Diemen’s Land under the Convict Family Reunion Scheme at government expense. The Scheme aimed to help “readdress the imbalance of gender in the colonies and provide an incentive to good behaviour among the male convicts”. Matilda and Abraham, among 49 passengers and 151 women convicts, arrived in Hobart on 4th September 1834 on the convict ship Edward. Five children were then born in Van Diemen’s Land.

In the census of 1837 he and Susannah Flower were in New Town and in the Census of 1843 he was in Murray Street, Hobart, in charge of a house with five others, all free, all Quakers.

Abraham Flower had contact with Quakers while on the Hulk, and then on Sarah Island, and it continued with permission to attend meetings while still a convict in servitude at Government House in Hobart. He was visited by Backhouse and Walker with a view to formal membership of the Movement (The Religious Society of Friends) and this was approved on the 14th day of the tenth month (October) 1833; that is, while still a convict he became a member of the newly established Hobart Monthly Meeting. Five others with convict experience also became members. “Backhouse and Walker had to combat a certain amount of prejudice among some friends who resented the acceptance of convicts into the Meeting”.

Abraham was very active as a Member and Minister (“recognising his gift for speaking acceptably in Meetings for Worship”) and acting Clerk and he remained closely associated with Backhouse and Walker who regarded him to be “a prop to the struggling Hobart Meeting during their periods of absence”. Interestingly in view of his later monetary problems he and another Friend were appointed in 1838 “to advise Friends of Hobart Town to keep proper accounts”! After an incident at home another member remarked that “it is a pleasant prospect to have a neighbour of such approved honesty as one of the Society of Friends”. He did, however, “depart from the path of strict adherence to the truth when he recorded himself in the [1843] Census as having ‘arrived free’. Desire to distance himself from a distasteful memory was perhaps understandably strong enough to silence any momentary promptings of a Quaker conscience”. Backhouse expressed the exhilaration which Flower’s transformation had aroused in the hearts of friends and

that one of the despised, hated and persecuted little band at Macquarie Harbour should become an accredited minister of a body of Christians … cannot but be considered as one of those glorious triumphs of Grace which cause the saints to rejoice, to adore and to love the Saviour with increasing ardour.                                                                   

 He tried various jobs – butcher, milkman, farmer – and despite three hundred pounds being left to him by his father, he became insolvent in 1841. This led to a prolonged investigation by the Hobart Monthly Meeting and in 1844, after he and his family had moved to Launceston, he was to be visited as to “the conduct of the said Friend and as to his clearness with respect to his pecuniary circumstances”. There were more problems in Launceston and finally, a Certificate of Removal was prepared and upheld by the Van Diemen’s Land Yearly Meeting on the 3rd day of the fourth month 1845.

Rechabites “tent” in Bung Bong, rural Victoria. Photo By NationalLitchfield – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Launceston Meeting had minuted his failing in a business venture (exporting fruit to Port Phillip), slowness in clearing his debts and “involving himself with a secret society, the Order of Rechabites”. This society was founded in 1835 “with a commitment to Teetotalism”. In March 1847 the Meeting “ruled that the Rechabites, like the Freemasons, ‘fall under definition of secret societies’, that ‘the adoption of badges, insignia and passwords and signs was inconsistent with Christian simplicity and gravity’, that time spent in meetings was ‘misspent time’, and that coffee houses [where their meetings were frequently held] were public houses”. When Abraham had persisted in his Rechabite connection the meeting formally disowned him.

A letter to him from George Washington Walker in Hobart in 1847, regretted his association in Launceston with the Rechabite Tent but agreed with him being “disowned” by the Launceston Monthly Meeting of Quakers and ceasing “to be a member of our Religious Society” while admitting that “many times has my own soul been refreshed in contemplating thy Christian deportment, and in feeling the influence of thy fervent and lively exercise on behalf of others, which was, i have no doubt bleſred [blessed] to the edification of many as well as myself.” He pleaded with him to “consider rather, whether in the sight of the Lord thou art not verily guilty of having departed in heart from him – of having ‘left thy first love’”, to repent, and longed for him to be “restored to the full measure of His favour” and to “be reinstated in membership with us, and be restored to full unity with thy friends, who be assured cherish still a warm interest in thy welfare.” Signed “I remain Thy sincere Friend, Geo W Walker”. Elsewhere Walker expressed his verdict as “I still believe that much lies at the door of those who shut up the bowels of compassion against an erring brother”.

And again in the “3mo. 1849”, a letter to “My dear friend Abm Chas. Flower” with “fervent desires for thy welfare … that thou mayst lay aside every weight, and the sin which may easily beset thee … yield thyself unreservedly to his will, cost what it may, lest thou should fail in receiving the end of thy faith, even the salvation of they soul”.

And again in the “5 mo. 50” to “Dear Abraham”, having seen a letter from him to Wm Horten “that has filled my mind with sorrow on thy account, and for thy family” re his “utter destitution”, and urging him “instead of waiting till means may drop into his hands to enable him to obtain journey man’s wages, if it be had, and earn at any rate food and raiments in the meantime rather than starve in idleness.” He enclosed “a pound [about $A195 today], which, with what I know others are sending, will temporarily assist”. He refers to another letter he sent to him “when thou wast in Melbourne”.

Abraham had gone on the Swan to Melbourne in 1849 then to the goldfields near Castlemaine. Susannah died in 1858. In 1868 [aged 63, 27 years before he died] two travelling Quaker ministers, Joseph Neaves and Walter Robson, discovered Abraham near Castlemaine, and Walter gave the following picture of “the old man”:

‘His wife being deceased and his family married and settled elsewhere, he lived alone, his occupation, gold-digger, which brings him in an income of about five shillings [about $A 26 today] per week. He is in a most happy and thoughtful state, telling us his wants were well supplied, his little two roomed hut, of his own building, enabling him to live rent-free. He keeps some goats which supply him with milk. We had a very precious time with him, a brook by the way….. A few months ago he was put in jail for a little debt which he had offered payment of, but his creditor, an unprincipled man, who has since been sold off, and ruined himself, refused to accept the money when offered and from spite, we suppose, put the old man to jail. Even here he was happy and it was very instructive to us both to see how humble and tender and sensible of his many shortcomings he was, yet so full of the love of Jesus and gratitude to him’ and ‘there was nothing of unkind feelings towards those who had been instrumental in his separation from Friends.’

Abraham Charles Flower, listed as a carpenter, died in Echuca in Dec 1895 aged 90 and was buried in the nearby Moama Cemetery.

In retrospect, maybe he suffered from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) resulting from his experiences as a convict; that he over-spent his money on alcohol to assuage his distress; and that he sought help from the Rechabites to control his drinking and thereby his indebtedness; and that he went on to live a simple life and be “most happy”.

How amazing that this life was set on its course by a little comb!






[1] Especially Old Bailey Proceedings, documents held by the University of Tasmania library (including a biography by Betty Mason, AC Flower’s great great granddaughter), the PhD thesis ‘Quakers in Australia in the Nineteenth Century’ by WN Oats, and an account of Quaker Missions in Launceston and Northern Tasmania by Michael Bennett in the Launceston Historical Society.

[2] Used to imitate expensive grained wood.

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